18 Nov 2008

The gospel according to database

When visiting the two biggest contract publishers in New York, you might think there would be a lot of talk about how you write content and design magazines (or websites for that matter). There's not. They talk about their – and their clients’ – databases. Databases with the names of hundreds of thousands of people in them. And e-mail addresses. And information about where they live, how many kids they have and if they like gardening. Or pottery. Or golf.

In Sweden, a marketing director might decide they'd like a magazine to send out to their customers. Because it's a nice thing to have and you can write nice stuff about your company that someone hopefully reads. In the US, it seems, nobody will spend a dime on anything that doesn't have a proven ROI (return on investment) from day one.

This is where the database comes in. If you're a Ford customer, you get your edition of the Ford magazine, depending on what dealership you bought your car from, and what car you have. Ford knows this about you. Ford might also know other things about you that you never told them, because they've bought other databases with information. So your Ford magazine might be 50% different from your friend’s Ford magazine if he lives somewhere else and drives another model.

So how do you measure the success of this communication? Well, you send your magazine to some of your clients and not to others. In the magazine, you tell them to go to an official auto-repair shop to service their Ford because ... (insert marketing clichés here). Then you follow up the clients that come in: are they the ones who get the magazine or not? If you've done your job as a contract publisher, they are the ones with the magazine. It works. And you can prove it.

Of course this is done in Sweden as well. It is called CRM and loads of companies have it as their business. But what baffled us was the scale and the fact that it's the contract publishers that are doing it themselves (they don't call themselves contract publishers any more though, but rather "full-service marketing agencies"). The ones we visited – Time Content Solutions and Meredith Integrated Marketing – are both part of huge publishing organizations. Together they publish probably hundreds of subscription magazines. And of course they are tapping into these subscriber databases to find out more about their clients’ customers.

Although I find it somewhat demoralizing to think that all the content ideas should be dictated by a database on a server somewhere (I'd like to think editors are professionals and pretty good at communication), there are a couple of points worth taking from this:

- Know your audience.
- Don't expect the client to be happy if you can't prove that what you're doing works.
- If you're eager to follow up on your own work (Meredith doesn't go into projects if the client isn't willing to commit to pay for evaluation), the client feels you mean business.


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